By Pam Munter
How old was I when I realized I was the family’s black sheep? As long as I can remember, I knew I could not trust my parents with my real self. That they naturally considered themselves experts on me came, not only from their assumed roles, but from the fact they took great pleasure in telling me what to do, what to think and how to feel, as if they were consulting some hidden how-to parenting manual. As a result, there was seldom any mystery about the rules. First and foremost, I learned early on that one maintained an omerta with regard to any family information. The keeping of family secrets meant no truth telling in or out of the family. Even my father’s arrival home from work was surrounded by a sense of stealth. He would park his car in the garage and close the door so no one in the neighborhood would know he had come home.
If there had been a cautionary embroidered motto framed and hanging on the kitchen wall it would have read, “What would the neighbors think?” A negative opinion coming from a relative stranger would have qualified as one of the Seven Deadly Sins in our household. It was the 1950s and such attitudes in our middle class Los Angeles suburb were not that unusual. Conformity was a paramount value everywhere I looked. There was no wearing white after Labor Day, you ate three meals a day no matter what, you dressed up when you go out to dinner, and it was essential that girls should always be smiling and to let boys win in any game. The rules just kept coming.
I have a memory of being in our kitchen when I was probably under the age of five. I am standing by the stove near the Frigidaire. The wallpaper is colorful and flowery against a black background; the floor is linoleum. My mother is washing dishes, her back to me. I am crying and apologizing to her, promising I’ll try to play with dolls like the other little girls. I knew it was important to her that I fit in and I knew by then I didn’t. I remember she said, “Oh, that’s all right, honey.” But I knew she was lying.
My mother was a cheerful but anxious woman whose initial response to nearly any situation was a quick, warm smile. Her philosophy could be neatly compressed within a series of clichés, pre-fab answers to any conundrum, her own semantic Valium. Her favorites were “Moderation in all things” and “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Taken together, these were intended to guarantee a life of emotional safety along with probable and inadvertent collateral damage – a profound sense of loneliness within an uninspired life. She didn’t want me spending too much time with any close friends, fearing something she wouldn’t articulate. “Can Jacquie spend the night?” I might ask. “No, you two were together all day.” We were eight. What did she think would happen? Nor were any kind of intense feelings welcomed. Anger or sadness were met with the admonishment, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” And, “There will no crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” I sometimes sensed she wanted something from me but I never could figure it out. Mere compliance seemed insufficient.
Probably around the same age as the kitchen scene, something very good had happened and I was happy about it. Dancing my way out to the front yard, I fell down the front steps and hit my head, raising a goose egg on my forehead. My mother bolted into the house and, after briefly sticking a table knife into the freezer, came out and put the cold blade on the lump. “Oh, what a shame, sweetie. Everything was going so well. Too bad the fall has ruined it all for you.” I was confused. I didn’t see then how a small negative event could cloud and even contaminate a larger, positive one but I get it now. All I can remember is the fall and her catastrophizing words.
At her best, she was fun with a wonderful sense of irreverent, mocking humor, poking fun at people and situations. She was good company. If she went to the store, she asked if I wanted to go and I usually did. When we went to the movies together, she would laugh loudly at the Tom and Jerry cartoon, rendered nearly helpless by the silly slapstick. Her mouth would gape open and she would almost gasp for air, bent from the waist in her seat. It embarrassed me and I hoped no one there knew we were related. It was one of the rarest of times when it was apparently acceptable to stand out from the crowd.
On the surface, she was warm and light-hearted if opaque, almost simple. There was never much discussion of anything outside her limited domestic bailiwick. She spent an inordinate amount of time drinking coffee and smoking Kent cigarettes with neighbors and friends, gossiping and complaining about those who weren’t there – including me. I could easily discern the subject of the discussion when my entrance into the room downshifted the conversational music into a slower tempo. When she was done with her domestic duties, she filled her leisure time reading murder mysteries. I thought it to be a waste of a possibly promising intellect. But then, that’s what women did. The only working women I knew were my teachers.
From my earliest childhood, she dyed her naturally mousy brown hair dark blonde and maintained a weekly beauty shop appointment to keep it just so. Her daily heavily-sprayed French twist gave the illusion of a sophistication to which she merely aspired. It was a timely testimonial to the importance of appearances. While she clearly took pride in how she looked, she never came close to winning the battle over her excess poundage. God knows she tried, though. She enrolled both of us in weight loss programs over the years, which included several rounds of Dexadrine injections at one point. Perhaps her most diverting attempt was the purchase of an electric exercise bike. Somehow she thought she’d magically lose weight by sitting on the seat while watching television, letting the motor do all the work. With her short 5’2” frame, she was always overweight no matter what, likely getting grief from my father about that.
She was emotionally unmoored in her marriage. My father was remote, rigid and judgmental, critical of anyone who was different from what he envisioned himself to be, a lower middle class version of the dashing movie star, Clark Gable. He even wore a fedora like Gable and fashioned his moustache in a rakish Gablesque configuration. For the rest of my life, I thought of him every time I saw a Clark Gable movie. I wondered if he had done it on purpose. It was like a disguise.
He had been born in England, the youngest of nine. When my grandmother courageously emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, crossing the Atlantic on a boat with six of her nine children and without her husband, he was 11. His mother dressed him as she had in England, in Little Lord Fauntleroy short pants and fluffy shirts. He was regularly beaten and bullied on the way home from school and barely made it through high school. He was a concrete thinker who did all things methodically. When I was a teenager, he took up oil painting. He carefully laid out a drawing on graph paper using precise measurements, reproducing it exactly square by square before filling in the paint. Curiously, at some point in his life, he mysteriously and furtively shaved two years off his age. No one knew about this until he had died. The bubbling anger, resentment and prejudices that began in his childhood continued to seethe not all that far from the surface.
My father and I were seldom alone but on one memorable night he took me to the movies, my favorite place to be. We were standing in line about to buy tickets when some raucous friends of his – whom I didn’t know – pulled him aside to tell him what I later figured out was a dirty joke. Pointing abruptly to me, he said, “You wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.” I stood in the forecourt, examining the posters in glass cases promising the upcoming films, trying to lose myself in a distant cinematic fantasy. Willing away the tears, I told myself my feelings of hurt and abandonment were overblown.
I was, as my mother often told me, just being selfish. It was one of her favorite punitive epithets, hurled at me like projectile vomit. Something inside me was shifting but I didn’t know what it was yet. I was ten years old.
My mother was born in a small town in North Carolina, the youngest of four and the only girl. Her parents were poorly educated, but plagued by other, more destructive addictions. Her father lost two businesses as the result of repeated gambling losses and, in an era where this was truly egregious, fathered a child out of wedlock. I didn’t find out about this until I was an adult. Mom desperately wanted to go on the stage with a summer stock troupe but her parents prohibited it, convinced it was disreputable and, ironically, would bring dishonor to the family. Shame would become her worst fear and one of her most effective weapons against her children.
My parents had met at a party in Cleveland Heights. Mom’s best friend had fallen in love with one of Dad’s brothers, the four of them double dating until they each decided to wed. My mother described my father as “handsome and glamorous,” a step up in social class for her. Recently, I looked up their houses on the internet and they don’t look very different from each other. Both are typical Midwest two story homes with multiple bedrooms and a single bathroom. It’s hard to detect the upward status mobility for which my mother yearned, other than the possible difference in neighborhoods.
My parents honeymooned at Niagara Falls after a small ceremony with a justice of the peace. It was 1935, the height of the Depression. There was a photo taken against a fake backdrop of the falls.
They are both smiling awkwardly at the camera, my mother’s arm holding on to him. For some reason, he has a cane and is leaning on it in a jaunty manner. Both look well dressed for the times in heavy clothing, perhaps warmed against a late spring.
I knew they wanted children. My mother had confided in me about the three miscarriages she had before me, then another before my brother was born nearly six years later. They eagerly anticipated my arrival in their lives but they had no idea what to do with me once I got here.
They slept in separate beds. I never saw them embrace or kiss each other and didn’t even notice the absence of affection until much later in my life. When I was 16, seemingly out of nowhere, my mother informed me my father had had a series of affairs over the years, most recently with the wife of their best friend across the street. Her disclosure was a preface to her pointed suggestion that I follow my father one Saturday afternoon when he left the house to see where he was really going, perhaps catching him in flagrante. My prized first car was a bright blue used Fiat 600, hardly invisible for undercover work. I later told her I lost the trail but, in reality, I was too embarrassed to complete the task. By now, I had felt emotional distance from both parents and this cloak-and-dagger caper made me feel even more an outsider. They had separated briefly after an earlier violation, though I was only seven and didn’t know. I wondered why she had told me any of this.
One night at dinner, when I was still eating with them, she chided my father for coming to the table in his undershirt. She served everybody, then sat down at the far end of the L-shaped turquoise Formica counter, her usual position.
“Eric, please go put on a shirt. We’re having dinner.”
“I’m wearing a shirt.”
“You know what I mean. It’s just not appropriate to eat in your underwear.”
When he persistently but silently refused to go and change, she suddenly and defiantly removed her blouse with much dramatic flair. I watched it happen out of the corner of my eye and wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I never saw my parents disagree about anything, so this was frightening, laden with calamitous possibility. What would happen next? Here were my parents, sitting in silence in their underwear, eating dinner. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, afraid of what it might mean. I sat in silence, staring at my plate. I kept on eating but swallowing any of it was another matter. After dinner, everyone went their separate ways and no mention was ever made of it again. Why the escalation? Why that night? What had I missed? In one impulsive moment of pique my mother undid her treasured myth of the happy, conforming family.
My father and I seldom had real conversations. He would interrogate me nearly every day when he got home from work: “Did you brush your teeth?” And, often to my chagrin, “Did you have a bowel movement today?” I never understood why he doubted my hygiene or why my bowel habits were of such pervasive fascination. Then again, he seemed to dismiss most anything I might try to contribute to the conversation. If I said something with which he disagreed – which seemed to happen more often as I got older – he would label it as “stupid” or “silly,” without further explanation or discussion. When I’d feel hurt or dismissed, my codependent mother would repeatedly reassure me, telling me how much he loved me, but I never heard it from him. As a little kid, I would believe him when he said he would catch me after acrobatically holding me over his head. But I soon learned he took delight in seeing me fall nearly to the ground, my breath short with fear. “Don’t trust anyone, not even your father,” he would laugh, catching me just before I hit the ground. Eventually, I would quickly add, “especially my father.” If I complained, he would say, “What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?” Many years later, when I joyfully announced I had been accepted into graduate school in clinical psychology, he wondered aloud if I would be any good at it because I was “so aloof.”
When I was a chunky preteen, my father would pay me money to lose weight, so much a pound. I dreaded the weigh-ins, but even then, I had a sense this wasn’t about me. At the same time, my mother was regularly filling the cookie drawer with my favorite chocolate Fiddle Flakes. I was in the middle of their wars without realizing it but I often felt like the target.
I can remember only part of this, but I was in the bathroom one Saturday afternoon and my father entered without knocking. I objected and, in my preteen swagger, I demanded he give me privacy, “for Christ’s sake.” This was invective I had never used but I had overheard him saying it while making a point with a neighborhood friend. He smacked me across the face. “Never use that word again.” I stared at him defiantly, which had become my default response to any discipline I thought unreasonable. A week later, I walked by the dining room table to see a letter he was writing where he seemed to affectionately refer to the recipient as “you bastard.” After that, I confined my profanity to my friends, along with other unsanctioned behaviors.
My mother engaged in occasional, jocular wordplay but that kind of levity was well beyond my father. His idea of humor was to tell a joke in which a minority group was defamed. About the time I hit my teens, I become so upset at his tasteless dinner table jokes and bigoted comments that I began taking my evening meal on a TV tray in my room. Soon, my brother started eating in his room as well, leaving them to eat alone in the kitchen.
I never saw him read so much as a magazine, much less a book. It was only in a social environment that he seemed to come alive, telling jokes and kidding around, mostly with the women. It made me uncomfortable and it would be years before I would understand the sexual overtones of the playfulness. At home, if he wasn’t fixing or building something, he was planted on the couch, watching television. One of my friends once referred to him as “the grey ghost.” Yet when family friends came over, he assumed a comical entertainer pose, becoming someone I didn’t recognize.
They were both high school graduates. At least, I think they were. My father worked his way through a slew of manual labor jobs until he was hired as a technician at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica on the eve of World War II. Because he worked in a defense industry and had a family he was exempt from the draft. When I was small and sitting on his lap, he bragged that a skin imperfection on his neck came from being “shot by the Japs” on the front lines during the war, but the truth was he never left Southern California. With available workers scarce and the demand for product high, he moved up through the ranks at the rapidly growing airplane manufacturing company. Years later, when I flew across Kenya in a DC3, I wondered if it was one he had helped build.
Before I was old enough for kindergarten, I looked forward to his walking through the front door every night toting his empty black metal lunch pail. He had an odd, indeterminate smell about him, like something metallic. Later I realized it must have come from his inconsistent bathing. I remember the first day he walked in the front door wearing a suit and tie with a smile on his face. Something was different. In what seemed like a flash, we had moved from lower middle class to middle class, due to a significant promotion and raise. My mother, ever cognizant of social appearances, strongly pressed him over the years toward further advancement. After all, in the 1950s, one’s value was directly proportionate to one’s material success. At some point in her campaign, he rebelled, turning down a proffered title of Vice President. He didn’t want to sit at a desk. He was a hands-on guy, a problem-solver, the one Mr. Douglas himself would call in the middle of the night when the toilet overflowed. My mother was articulate in her disapproval but it never seemed to escalate into an overt battle. Then again, I never heard them argue at all.
A few weeks before I got married, my mother and I were driving toward downtown Los Angeles. We were going to see a musical at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Out of nowhere, it seemed, she announced, “I hope you’re sure about this because if you ever leave him you can’t come home, you know.” I was stunned by this surprising and malicious rejection. I’m still not sure why she thought I would consider that regressive move to be any kind of sanctuary. I promised her I would never do that. In a delicious twist of fate, when I did end the marriage, it was my mother who offered to come and live with me – to help with my son, she said. I politely but unequivocally declined.
Both my parents placed a high value on socializing so they must have been puzzled and even troubled by my lack of interest in hanging around when we had company. I’d listen for a while then retreat to my room, a place of safety from the inevitably critical review of my behavior that followed the guests’ departure. Somehow I always said the wrong thing or failed to say something she thought was appropriate to the conversation. Staying away was the safest option. The only time I willingly came out of my bedroom retreat was for meals but always for performance evenings. And glorious they were, too.
Some time after the usual weekend barbeque, the company was wrangled into our den where there was the usual assortment of furniture, along with an upright player piano, a record player and a microphone on a stand. While I wasn’t routinely the first to sing or play, I was more than an eager participant, a Grade A ham. They were some of the best times I can remember when we were all together. Here I was typically free of the social violations dutifully chronicled by my mother. Both my parents were naturally musical, without any formal training. Dad played the piano, the accordion and guitar, all by ear. Mom liked to sing and had a pleasant alto voice. She knew the lyrics to many of the really old songs. As a result, I learned them, too.
I can remember the first time I heard my father play the small, used pump organ that lived in the dining room. He had just brought it home the night before. I was probably four or so, maybe even younger than that. As he played and sang “San Antonio Rose,” I could feel copious tears streaming down my cheeks. My mother came over, put her arm around me and asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t tell her what I was feeling because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Now I know it’s because the music touched me so deeply. She laughed, chiding me. “You shouldn’t cry. It’s happy music,” she said. My mother always wanted things to be happy and cheerful but emotional intensity on either end of the spectrum was to be shunned.
In fact, my earliest memory was singing for strangers in the club car on a train bound for Cleveland. I was three. They were all songs my mother had taught me when we’d sing together. From what I’m told, I held them spellbound with “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey.” My encore was, “’A,’ You’re Adorable.” Given any amount of encouragement, there would be more, too. This was near the end of the Shirley Temple era, after all, and I was a similarly diminutive, pudgy, curly-haired blonde with blue eyes. Do I really remember this or do I picture the scene so vividly because of the number of times my parents proudly told the story?
If we went on car trips, singing was customarily involved. I’d start off with an a cappella four-bar intro to “Shine On Harvest Moon,” knowing everyone would take that as a cue to chime in on the chorus.
Oh, Mr. Moon, bright and silvery moon,
Won’t you please shine down on me?
Oh, shine on, Shine On Harvest Moon
Up in the sky.
I ain’t had no lovin’ since
January, February, June or July
I had taught myself to harmonize with my mother. No one kept up with the current popular tunes but me, so the family repertoire consisted only of the older tunes my parents learned in their youth. That was fine with me. I loved the feeling of singing. Nothing bad seemed to happen then and I learned that music brought a sense of peacefulness, respite from tense interactions and even pleasure.
Unfortunately, my brother had missed inheriting the family musical gene. His major contribution to the neighborhood evenings of entertainment was an energetic pumping of our player piano while others sang. It wasn’t until years later that he proudly announced to me that he genuinely considered himself a gifted musician because of his ability to perform this task with so much expression. John was almost six years younger, an occasionally willing pawn for this amateur musical impresario. I taught him how to do record pantomimes and choreographed them for those fervently anticipated evening performances. We also learned the popular duets of the day, including our favorite, “Mutual Admiration Society.” The family musical legacy was one of the best things my parents left me, an emotional oasis in an otherwise vigilant and occasional anxious atmosphere.
When I was on the dark side of middle age, I Googled my 8th grade homemaking teacher, discovered she was still alive and wrote her a letter. To my surprise, she remembered me. In fact, she told me I was the only one she had remembered from all her years of teaching. We met in person a few months later in my living room and spent several hours together, talking. One of her first questions was, “Why were you so angry back then?” She had been a girly-girl even in her 20s, petite in stature, and wore her hair in a perky ponytail in the mid 1950s. She had told us in class that she had been a ballet dancer. She couldn’t be more different than I felt myself to be. With every class, I was reminded of my outlier status. I admired and even envied her but she lived in a universe I knew I would never share. So I wrote droll, mordantly cynical aphorisms on the blackboard before class, such as “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Of course, so does falling down a flight of stairs.” Needless to say, this was just skimming the surface.
What praise I got from my mother over the course of my life seemed generic and highly conditional. A compliment might be delivered in comparison to unspecified earlier inadequacies. On the way home from a school band concert in which I had a bass clarinet solo, she commented, “You’ve gotten so much better.” These barbs were more than I remember getting from my father. At one point, I asked my mother why she had stayed with him. She told me, “He’s always been a good provider.”
That was enough for her.
Looking back, they were like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. Are all generations this distant from one another, relying on social structure and manipulation of power to keep families intact? Without realizing it, I longed for substance, to be able to talk about life and ideas and real things but we had a noun-based family – persons, places, things were the mandated, generic topics of conversations. Then there were those ever-ready clichés with which my mother preferred to relate. Nothing personal except the critiques.
By the time I grew up, got married and had a child, I was well aware of the fallout from my upbringing. Somehow, thanks to a few mentors and extensive self-education, I had fashioned a person I liked most of the time, but I wasn’t so sure about other people. Too many of them were either frequent opportunistic slimers like my mother or took advantage of my trust like my father.
On a weekend visit after I had moved away from home, my mother and I were riding in the car on our way to the market when in an impulsive moment I asked her, “Why do you love me?” Her response told me what I had long suspected. “Because you’re my daughter,” she said with a warm smile, satisfied that she had answered my question. She had no idea who I was or that I might be asking for more specific personal validation.
I had become a successful clinical psychologist helping others discover their own familial patterns, well-educated and sophisticated about family dynamics. But it wasn’t until something my mother said a few years later that the full impact of her childrearing mantra crystalized within me. It was as if someone twisted a kaleidoscopic dial and everything appeared in searing focus.
My son Aaron was four years old. I had sent him to his room for some infraction, without emotional fireworks or guilt tripping. My mother, who had come over for dinner, lit up another cigarette and said, “You did the right thing. You have to break their spirit early on.”
All the air seemed to leave the room. What did she say? “Break their spirit”? It was so dissonant, so casually abusive, so surprising that I could not summon any words in response. That phrase cycled through my brain for a long time after that. When I realized that it was largely this succinct mission statement that had left the scar tissue that took so many years to mitigate, the missing pieces of my internal patchwork quilt started to come together in an unmistakable pattern.
So that’s what happened.
About the Author
Pam Munter has authored several books and a couple dozen articles, mostly about dead movie stars. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Pam is working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth and Angels Flight—Literary West. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.